In a remarkable demonstration of public soul-searching, Pope Benedict XVI on Monday used a high-profile Christmas speech to Vatican cardinals and bishops to demand reflection on the flaws in the Catholic Church's message and culture that permitted a global sexual-abuse scandal.
"We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred," Benedict said. "We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen."
In his address, which Benedict has used to emphasize his priorities to the assembled hierarchy, the pontiff said the past year's revelations of decades of sexual abuse of children by priests had taken on an "unimaginable dimension" and amounted to a "humiliation" that should be accepted as an "exhortation to truth and a call to renewal."
Benedict has often expressed disgust for the sins or "filth" in the church that caused the abuse of innocent victims and an uneasy seeking of repentance.
In an apparent effort to demonstrate the goodwill of the pope, who was indirectly drawn into the scandal when questions arose over his handling of cases while he was archbishop of Munich, the Vatican this month published a 1988 letter that appeared to show him calling for quicker punishment of priests in his capacity as the church's top doctrinal enforcer.
In his remarks Monday, the pope seemed to go further, suggesting that Christianity and its message had failed to prevent and address the abuse.
During the last year, a sexual abuse scandal that top cardinals had once insinuated was a problem of the American church alone has spread throughout the world. Investigations across Europe have discovered a familiar pattern of bishops and other church hierarchy, including Vatican officials, ignoring or covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.
Monday, the pope put the abuse in the context of the "many good priests" and also placed blame on a favorite villain for conservatives within the church: a sexually derelict culture of the 1970s in which a godless relativity ran wild, and "pedophilia was theorized as something that was in keeping with man and even the child."
"The effects of such theories are evident today," said Benedict, calling attention to "the psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise."
The pope also lamented the rise of secularism over a uniformly accepted morality ("The very future of the world is at stake") and the dangers of "Christianophobia."
But the pope in his sharp passages about the stains of abuse forced attention to the breakdowns in the church and urged top officials in the Roman Curia to root out potential predators in future generations of priests.